Pandora’s Boxes

My Dad introduced a YouTube video called, “The Tale of Two Brains” by Mark Gungor. His video was a comedy show depicting his notion of men vs women brain wiring. In his video, he suggests that people, both male and female, have a mental warehouse of boxes in their heads that catalogs everything we know about the world. One box is reserved for your usual routines for your job, another is reserved for the operation of a car, another for food and so on. The big difference between the two genders is that men open one box at a time while women open several boxes at the same time.

Although Mark’s philosophy was presented as a comedy sketch, it does make some poetic sense in the regards of how to explain the way the two genders think. Coupled with the fact that men’s brains have more grey matter than women (the data processing parts of the brain) and women’s brains contain more white matter than men (the data cables that transmit information to different parts in the brain) only validates his reasoning.

If I were to explain my brain in this manner, I would say my mental warehouse of boxes would be different to how Mark would describe it. My cardboard metaphors would not be so uniformed or as neatly organized on the shelves. If I were to give my mental warehouse form, I would describe it like a small room filled with an odd collection of containers with all my boxes stacked on top of each other on random piles and in the middle of this room is a work desk where I consult my business with each case.

For example, every movie I’ve watched would rest in a long, see-through-plastic container filled with VHS cassettes (product of being a child of the 90’s). I would have my memories of High School in an old Office Depo box and filled with old keepsakes from that time. For everything relating to my job, it would rest in nondescript shipping box. Matters that concerned my car was in a glovebox off to the side. My profile filing cabinet that relates names and faces often gets pushed into the back behind everything else. Subjects regarding to Legos, games, and other simple delights lay in wait in an extra big toy chest (I’m a kid at heart).

Alongside the containers I require to function from day to day, there are some I wish I could live without.

-Such as the small sinister black box that lays abandon in a corner of my room. Inside it are profiles of people that have hurt me in the past. Every so often the lid of this box will jar loose and corrupt my thoughts with taunting echoes of my failures. (not to be confused with my skeleton in the closet)

-Another problematic box is the one containing my social repertoire. I have once explained before. It is the mental bank of social of knowing what to do in specific situations. I think there is a leak in this box. I’ve come a long way from where I’ve been, but I still feel this container is never full or ready for action at a moment’s notice. I can joke, I can be playful, but only when I have been around someone I have known for a while.

-Some people can hold conversations like flowing water. Me? I need to fish for words out of a dictionary before I can make a conversation. Such as the function of the box of words, brother box to the social repertoire. Anytime I want/need to talk to someone, I need to collect little strips of paper with printed words and then arrange them in proper order.

This mental process is why it takes me so long to formulate a response. If I try to rush this process, then my messages come out all garbled (This is more commonly known as Word Cluttering). I required some speech therapy before my vocabulary messes got better, my messages became clearer, and the word fishing became easier.

            Although his intent was to make his audience laugh, I believe Mark Gungor has provided perhaps one of the simplest ways to explain the human mind. I hope this warehouse and box themed metaphor has provided a accrete tour inside my head and I hope it brings some clarity to how others with autism think as well.

Beware of Trolls That Dwell in Cardboard Castles

The week before my trip, I had a conflict with a coworker. Not my fault! This individual typically works in my warehouse’s box-making area…and nothing else. Box making isn’t a difficult task. The chore involves taking flat boxes from a pallet, load them into a folding machine, take folded shipping boxes from the machine, and loading them onto a motorized overhead conveyor to be distributed to the warehouse packers. A dismal task to say the least. If it wasn’t boring, then it was annoying, as the machine would always break down if you so much as look at it.

My coworker, however, took great pride in this task. So much so, he believed he the manager of box making. He was no manager. This pride has rewarded him with a nasty temper and would often snap at anyone who wouldn’t do things his way or who denied him his favorite job. Even before our confrontation, I didn’t agree with what he did, how he treats others, or his lack of spirit in life despite being only in his mid-thirties.

If he wasn’t belittling someone for bring him the wrong colored pallet-jack, he was inventing new rules that the real managers didn’t authorize, saying that certain people don’t deserve to work there, loath the company picnic at an amusement park, and made his coworker’s jobs harder than it needed to be. And now it was my turn to work with him.

I was going about my business. I had my box-folding machine, and he had his on the opposite side of the area. I loaded my boxes on to the trolley, saying nothing, and he did the same. As I was working, I felt some kind of tension in the air, the same kind of aura you would feel from an angry parent, but my thoughts were too occupied elsewhere to care. My head was dancing with excitement for the prospect of going to Belize and imaging what wondrous adventures I may have. I couldn’t care less about the other guy or what his problem was. For three hours, we said nothing to each other ––– not even a “hello.”

I was about to load a stack of finished boxes onto the trolley. Then – Boom! – I was shoved out of the way by the supposed Box Master. Instead of an apology, he went on a rant that I wasn’t doing my job properly and that his boxes were more important than mine. I was stunned, but only for a moment. My mind briefly flashed back to the soulless English teacher that bullied me in college. I then felt a grenade pin drop in my mind. The anger I have suppressed from that time combined with the frustration of my unfulfilled life came out all at once.

My retort was loud and came complete with colorful names and signing a very insulting salute. My reply made the coworker-turned-box troll angrier and started proclaiming that I was an evil person. Making insulting accusations that loosely translate to “nobody likes me,” “I intentionally annoy others,” and “I was alone and soulless.” I saw that this conflict could only end badly as he knocked over a stack of boxes during his hissy fit. So instead of risking my job over the Box Troll, I packed up my things, left to report to the managers, and left more kindly words as a rebuttal as I left.

I wasn’t terribly injured, but I have already lost a battle with one adult bully; I was not going to be a victim to another. Not without sharing my honest opinion of him. Even if he was signing my checks, he had no excuse to treat me like an underling. And besides, of all the problems in the world, he chose to pick a fight over boxes…how lame is that?

When I relayed my story to my manager, she was not surprised to hear that the Box Troll has scared off another partner. I was not the first to be chewed out by the Box Master over his supposed supremacy in his domain. It was no secret to anyone that he loathed anything but cardboard construction and demanded respect for his “skills.”

After I was reassigned to a new job and had time to cool my head, I began to reflect on what happened back there. I had only worked with him a few times and I knew very little about what he does outside the warehouse, or if he even has a life outside his job. I was certain he knew as much about me as I did of him. So how could he have possibly become so convinced that I was an evil person when all he knew about me was that I was a piss-poor box maker? How could he say such cruel things about me when our dialog between each other has been shorter than the attention span of a goldfish?

From my training as a social worker, I analyzed what I knew of this man to make some kind of sense of this his obsession for paper containers. After some hours of pondering, the only reason that made any sense to me is that he wanted control like most bullies. From my prior interaction with this guy, I gathered that he may lack control over his life at home and the reason he enjoys box-making so much is to take back some of the power he lacks from home through his coworkers. And now he hates me because I question his authority, I debate his methods, I didn’t show him the respect I would show a manager, and I didn’t give him control over me.

As sad as all of this may seem, I don’t have any pity for him. I’m not a professional social worker yet, he wasn’t my client, and he doesn’t want my help. The Box Troll may keep his precious Cardboard Kingdom. He can shout and play with his imaginary power all he wants, but I know for a fact that I am still better than him. I don’t need to step on others to feel good about myself. I don’t need to bully others to have control over my life. I have a lifetime’s worth of astonishing achievements under my belt with no intention of slowing down. Now I’m journey-bound to Belize to build a home made of wood, dreams, and hope.

I’m Ready to Go

Beep, beep, beep goes my alarm. As usual doing its daily duty to interrupt my dreams and remind me of my own daily tasks that can’t wait after nine in the morning. But today I needed to wake early, very early. Too early for work, school, or Christmas, although I was just as excited for the occasion. Today was special, for it was the day to make a difference to my life and many others. At 6 o’clock in the morning in the summer of 2014, I left for my immersion trip to Belize in Central America.

The concept of me traveling to another country has been a fond fantasy of mine. Whether it was for business or pleasure, I wanted to see the world in its true colors. On TV, we often hear the best features of a far-off place to attract tourists, and we hear the worst of another to fester panic for a news broadcast. I wanted to go to these places and see these places in their true light. I want to see the world through an unfiltered lens.

I have made attempts to follow this desire many times in the past. My first was in college and I applied to the school’s Study Abroad Program. Unfortunately, I didn’t have enough money to take me through that route. After college I tried again through the Peace Corps. With a social work degree and a sizable volunteer background, I thought I was a shoe-in to travel AND inflict some good in the world. Alas, it was not to be. The national level recruiters thought that I didn’t have the social competence to handle changing circumstance on the job, and so that bridge fell through along with a good portion of my hopes for the future.

Out of desperation, I entertained the idea of joining the Navy. I had no illusion of being the next American super soldier, but given the vocation of the men and women who are on board these ships, they would surely need a psychologist for professional counseling on board while traveling from one port to another. I went to their recruitment office to ask if they had room for a social worker. Only to found out that it didn’t matter. The Navy hiring policy prevented anyone with autism to join under any circumstances. As you might imagine, I was understandably sore to be denied due to something that wasn’t my fault. And so I was stuck in Kentucky and forced to continue working at a job that exercises none of my talents and satisfies none of my desires.

During an average day at work, I was in the middle of my usual routine when a thought hit me, “Hand in Hand Ministries does mission trips right?” With that one question, more sprang up. What is involved in these trips? How much does it cost? What skills are needed? What good can I accomplish? Soon questions became curiosity. Curiosity became ambition. And ambition became a plan.

At once, I shot Hand in Hand Ministries an e-mail asking them about their mission-trip programs.

Ever since my Eagle Project during high school, I have been a frequent volunteer for Hand in Hand Ministries (HHM). Their needs were often domestic, such as unloading a truck of incoming donations, loading outgoing donations to needy communities, and preparing HHM’s newsletter. However, HHM’s yearly hallmark of accomplishments is in their immersion trips to Appalachia, Nicaragua, and Belize. Every year HHM would gather a group of volunteers to venture to these locations, spend several days with the local community, take some time to see the world as they do, and leave behind a change for the people there. Although I knew about of these programs, I was focusing my efforts in joining a Peace Corps-type program and never investigated what was involved in HHM’s overseas programs.

I looked over HHM immersion brochures and became attracted to their Building for Change program in Belize. The trip involved taking a group of about 13 volunteers to Belize City and building a 16-foot-by-16-foot house for a family in one week.

At first the idea sounded preposterous. A group of 13 with no home-building experience is going to build a house in just seven days? However, the manager of the program assured me that:

1) It is not only going to be the 13 of us. We will have additional help from other families and volunteers with homebuilding experience

2) HHM has built over 250 houses just like this all over Belize and has always managed to finish the job in three-to four-day span

3) A 16-by-16-foot house is about the size of a small garage. Plus, our task will not include installing electricity, running water, or outgoing plumbing.

With my doubts quelled I immediately made arrangements to follow this quest.

To make arrangements easier I booked my place on the trip months in advance giving me plenty of time to prepare. Getting the time off work was not a problem. After a year of box shunting, I was due for a trip anyways and was able to request a full week of vacation time off. The trip was expensive, too, but I have been saving my hard-earned money for just such occasion. Getting the supplies was no problem, either; HHM provided me a supply list and a schedule so I would know exactly what was supposed to happen and what I would need for that time. Naturally, my parents would be worried for my safety overseas, but they were proud to see me go out into the world and do some good like they had in their youth. With preparations set, I was ready to go and fulfill my ambitions at last.

Outrunning Boredom

The Real World can suck at times. Being stuck in a warehouse 10 hours a day can wear on a person’s morale very quickly. In my spare time, I experiment with different hobbies to cure myself of boredom and remind myself that I’m person, not just a cog in a machine. Even in the time, I didn’t feel like doing anything constructive, I felt compelled to do something. I felt like I always needed to do something to occupy my time.

During college, one of the ways I spent my time off was by raising a small tank of fish. The fish gave me some healthy responsibility and company as I was going through my freshman year. Later when I moved to my second dorm in the second year my mom dared me to try my hand at raising plants in my dorm as well. Although my new dorm room was the size of a broom closet, it had access to a lot of natural sunlight. The plants became another good distraction for me. It was rewarding to see my plants mature and develop right before my eyes.

After college, it took me a long while before I could finally land a job. In the meantime, my Mom dared me into another hobby. While I was away at WKU, my family got invested in running. My mom, dad sisters, and several of our close friends were in on it. So it was only a matter of time before I became absorbed in it as well. After some coaching and proper gear, I came to enjoy the sport as a way to being healthier and a way to connect with others.

The unique thing, I feel, about running is that you run as an individual, yet you are also part of a community event and connect with fellow runners to encourage to do our best. I got this feeling while I was running in a thirteen-mile marathon through the city of Louisville.

Early Saturday morning, I was running and making good progress. Out of the thousands of runners that surrounded me, I had no idea who was in front of me or behind. My head was in its usual trance while I pace, listening my favorite songs on my phone. My head was so far in the clouds that I didn’t notice the road construction around the 5-mile marker.

I tripped on a piece of loose concrete from the construction in the area and I went down, hard. And there I was, on the ground with two scraped knees. Before the first drop of blood could leave my knees, several of the runners behind me stopped dead in their tracks to help me up and ask if I was OK. After I was to my feet and dusted down, I assured everyone that saw my fall that I was OK. The wounds to the knees didn’t make resuming the race easy.

At first I could only limp along, nursing my new handicaps. The thought of quitting right then and there had cross my mind. But something urged me to keep going. Maybe it was my own determination to finish what I have started? Maybe it was the synergy of competition that surrounded me that forced me to go on? Maybe it was both? Whatever the case, it worked and eventually I was able to bring myself back up to steam and finish the race in two hours and fifteen minutes!

When I race, I run for myself and my own reasons. Your goals are your own. Your strength is your own. Your ambition is your own. And the only time you fail is when you decide that it was not good enough. It is a perfect sport in which anyone can participate, nobody can feel alone, and feel awesome that you have accomplished something worthwhile.

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Here are some of the metals I have collected over the years while running.

Working From the Bottom

With diploma in hand and résumé drafted, I was ready to jump into the social-work field and put my new education into practice. In the spring of 2012, I started out by applying to several jobs at a government social-services organization. I had just got out of school, and I was in no hurry to have a job yet. After a few online applications, I kicked back, relaxed, and waited to see where my life was going. About a week later, I get an email saying that my candidacy was rejected. “No big deal”, I thought. Maybe they weren’t interested in me right now. I quickly moved on. However the more places I applied, the more skeptical I became.

About a year goes by, and I was still not in the social service industry and still jobless. I wasn’t being a snob about my search. I tried out many different agencies to at least get my foot into the door. Government, private, non-profit, internships, special needs, homecare, daycare, animal shelters. They all wrote back the same thing, “We thank you for you interest, but we have narrowed our candidacy to other applicants.” Each time I find this dismal message in my mailbox, it solidifies the notion that either I doing something wrong, or something else is afoot.

To prepare myself in this new level of social interaction, I applied to résumé workshops, interview practice, and speech therapy. I learned a lot from these classes on what it means to talk with others in a professional manner. Now armed with new manners, I tried my luck again and applied to a slue of jobs that claimed that they were in desperate need of social workers. However, despite my best efforts I still found rejection letters in my mailbox day after day.

It then occurred to me that these social work agencies were like an exclusive club to get in to. They didn’t want just anyone with a diploma to work for company. To be considered for an interview you need to know someone that already works at the company you are applying to, pass the leisure exam, know the secret handshake, and have 5 years of on-the-job experience. Job experience that I don’t have, and nobody would let me have or provide me a chance to prove myself. I also couldn’t take the license-giving exam because I wasn’t part of a social work company. My life was in a classic Catch 22.

It wouldn’t be years later that I would find out my school didn’t have any direct ties to the state government. Meaning, schools that DID have ties to the state would be given preferential treatment and given first dibs on any social work jobs. Meanwhile, graduates without those connections were on our own and had to figure how to get a job under our own power and I have already experienced how well that goes.

I was in a bind: Student loans were piling up, I was running out of money in the bank, and the Bank of Mom & Dad was closed. I lived in an expensive society and I needed money regardless of my professional goal or my education level.

So, with much bitterness, I applied for a job at a warehouse. Where you get paid minimum wage to shunt stacks of cardboard boxes from one end of an oven-tempered building to another. At first, I did some odd jobs for different companies through a temp agency. Some required that I take a surprise math quiz as part of the application process without a calculator. One place I applied was a tech company that was waiting on parts, and I’m still waiting on their call. Others were warehouses that collected parts for cell phone orders, unloading packages from trucks, etc. Although different in their merchandise specialty, I barely saw any difference between them. They had a complicated work process that didn’t work, the managers ignore the problems, and I had many coworkers that were not friendly. After a half-a-year of bouncing from one warehouse to another, I finally landed a long-term gig in a warehouse that specialized in shoes, among other things.

It was supposed to be just another hot, dust-filled building, and it was. But unlike the other warehouse jobs I had, here the work was simple, the coworkers were friendly, and the managers were proactive. During rest periods, there were times I would have casual conversations with my coworkers. As time went by, I eventually became one of the company trainers for the new warehouse associates.

Was this warehouse my true calling on life? Do I plan to stay here for the rest of my life?

No.

If anything, this detour only fueled my ambitions more. Warehouse work was easy and put money in my pocket, but I needed to move out and experience more. I was not as ambitious like Bill Gates or Steve Jobs. But I was restless enough to be dissatisfied with my life’s current state of affairs.

For the coming years, I spent the majority of my free time running marathons, involved with Boy Scouts as an adult leader, and working to build up a nest egg for myself. I didn’t know yet what I was saving for, but I lived in an expensive society and whatever I planned to do with my life was going to require money and lots of it.

Graduation Again

I woke up one early on a chilly Thursday morning in December 2011 and went about my usual morning routines. The day should have been like any other, but it wasn’t. For this particular Thursday was my last day of finals. My body was tense with anticipation. My brain was doing everything to retain every detail of my studies. My mind was geared towards facing my final obstacle that lay in wait for me and what it would mean if/when I passed.

The tension that surrounded me was (please excuse the cliché) so thick you could have cut it with a knife. I had faced final exams before and they were no picnic, but this was the test that could decide whether I graduate or not which made the stakes all the higher.

After about an hour or so, I put down my pencil for the last time at WKU and I handed over my exam to the professor. It was over. I was done. I was finished with college!

As I was walking back to my dorm, I felt so weightless. No more tests to worry about. No more project papers to contemplate or complete. I had nothing school-related to fret over. I could not keep this Cheshire cat-like grin from my face knowing full well that another chapter in my life had been completed in the best possible way.

Now came the most exciting time of all. Although I wouldn’t know all of my final scores until many weeks later, I was at my proudest moment, the graduation ceremony. I hadn’t felt this level of joy and self-accomplishment since my Eagle Ceremony or my high school graduation. My fellow social work colleagues and I couldn’t contain our joy as we walked up together to receive our hard-earned diplomas with our families and friends’ looking on.

Although the diploma itself was just a fancy sheet of paper, we give it meaning through our actions and our accomplishments. Then when our diploma is finally handed to us, it forever baptizes our commitment to our futures. However, despite all the cheers, applause of congratulations, and the party afterwards, I knew in my heart that my real journey had yet to start. Graduation was only the beginning.

Unfortunately, this new beginning started out with paying student loans. You see, despite my accomplishments at WKU and throughout my life, I was still burdened with debt to pay and no scholarships to help. During the course of my college term, my family and I had looked for grants to help ease my financial burden, but to no avail. Plenty of money has been used to research autism but not one dime of it goes to supporting an autistic student through college. While at the same time students with other disabling factors (low-income backgrounds, physical disabilities, etc.) can receive grants that can carry them all the way through college. Unfair but true, and I hope it changes soon.

The END is Coming

My final semester at Western Kentucky University—this year marked the final chapter for a very important time of my educational career. As I was going about my usual routines in the semester, I grew more and more restless with each passing day with the realization that the end was coming. All my life, I had only known life as a student. The largest majority of my life had been centered on studying for tests, completing book assignments, and gathering data to compose a project. Now, all my effort and patience was going to pay off, and my life as a student was coming to an end. As my days as a student were drawing shorter, I couldn’t help but count down the number of weeks, days, and hours that stood in the way between me and the real world.

Then something happened to make my graduation even more memorable! Midway through the semester, KAP was hosting their annual support-appreciation banquet. An event to honor all financial benefactors and moral supporters that have allowed KAP to grow over the years. Weeks before the event, KAP asked me to take part in this event by saying a few short words of thanks to WKU and the reigning president on video. The reason they choose me was because I was the only student at KAP who was scheduled to graduate that year.

Something unexpected happened. During the banquet my thank-you video wouldn’t play. In resolution, KAP’s director asked me if I would be willing to provide a live performance. I didn’t have a script handy, I was wearing a dirty jacket and blue jeans, my hair was a mess, and I hadn’t even shaved for the event. I had every reason to say “no”, but I went up anyway. Armed with nothing but my wits, this is what I said:

What I was trying to say… *pauses for laughter* is that I want to say thanks. It is difficult for someone like me to find the educational support that I need to grow to my full potential. Thank you for allowing me the opportunity to explore, try new things, and make mistakes when I need to. Again, thank you.

It may not have been the Gettysburg Address, but the audience enjoyed my live performance, rather than the recorded one. The biggest highlight of that evening was that after my speech, I was able to shake hands with the president of WKU, and I received a standing ovation.

I suppose this is one example when something better comes out when they don’t go according to plan. Knowing how to improvise has its merits too.